Outdoing the Louvre, even without the Mona Lisa, the National Gallery’s exhibition on Leonardo Da Vinci is comprehensive, well presented and insightful on an unquestionably great artist
HOW slack we are with our superlatives. A set of artists’ posters for the Olympics was published recently. The press release spoke of work by some of “our greatest artists”. Just the usual artists in the headlines – none is great, and few will be remembered beyond our own myopic generation.
Recently I had a face-to-face encounter with real great art, however – with genius, in fact. At the press view for the Leonardo exhibition, ahead of the pack, I was alone for several minutes with the two portraits which for me remain the stars of the show, not the Mona Lisa, for she is not there, but the Lady with an Ermine – a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, 15 year-old mistress of Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan – and the portrait known as La Belle Ferronière. So powerfully present are these two beautiful women, and through their portraits Leonardo himself, the impact was quite extraordinary. But Leonardo has always had that effect. Given almost god-like status in his lifetime, he has been legendary ever since. More than an artist, we see him as a magus. He looked into the future to see things that it took later generations centuries to understand.
He really is one of the greatest, but although his drawings are numerous, only around 16 or 17 actual paintings by him survive. (The doubt arises where Leonardo’s authorship is either partial or disputed.) What is more, several of these paintings were left unfinished and his biggest single undertaking, the Last Supper in Milan, is a ruin.
Now, in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, more than half of Leonardo’s recognised surviving paintings have been brought together. They are richly supported by drawings and by paintings by pupils who worked so closely with him that their work has often been confused with his, and vice versa. A large and near contemporary copy of his Last Supper also brings that great and mysterious work into the exhibition by proxy.
The show’s title is Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, for he went to Milan from Florence around 1482 and spent a significant part of his working life there. Surprisingly he first went to Milan, not as a painter, but as a musician. The first painting in the exhibition, a portrait of a young musician, testifies to that calling. The young man, bust length, holds a sheet of music. His face, touched with melancholy, is strongly defined by the light. His hair is long and curly and his lips ever so slightly parted (appropriately for a musician) invoke sound, either song or speech.
Nevertheless, it is the sitter’s large and luminous eyes that are his most striking feature. The eye is window to the soul, Leonardo believed. He painted these eyes to convey that truth and thus the superiority of painting to music, of the eye to the ear. Music dies, painting lives on, he said. If you look closely, too, one pupil is slightly more dilated than the other. Like the mobile lips, this suggests a fleeting reaction to the light and so we see time in the picture. This detail also bears witness to Leonardo’s study of the mechanics of the eye, not as an end in itself, but as part of his wider search for an understanding of nature so comprehensive that he could mirror the divine creation.
Cecilia Gallerani, the Lady with an Ermine, painted a few years later, is vividly alive. The ermine she holds like a pet is a symbol of purity. Addressing the Duke, a contemporary poet wrote of her, “The more alive and beautiful she remains, the greater will be your glory in every future age.” How right he was, except it is the painter who is remembered, not his patron. Leonardo himself wrote, “Time will destroy the harmony of human beauty in a few years, but this does not occur with such beauty imitated by the painter.”
Painting is a route to immortality, but it is also the agent of love. His sitter stands, in his own words, for “the beauty of all created things, especially those that arouse love.” In pursuit of that beauty, his ongoing study of anatomy now informs the complex movement of her head and body; the exquisitely rendered shape of her head beneath her tightly bound hair reflects his studies of the structure of the human skull.
We don’t know for sure who the sitter is in La Belle Ferronière, though she was certainly a lady at the court of Milan. Almost perfectly beautiful, she gazes straight out at us, still, pensive, but almost disturbingly aware. “Such beauty that should quickly perish has been granted immortality,” wrote a contemporary. Here, however, Leonardo also equates her beauty to the ideal in the perfect geometry of her head and figure, emphasised by the band, supporting a jewel, that precisely encircles her head. This way of wearing a jewel is called a ferronière and, much later, it seems to be this that gave the picture its name (but it could be the other way round and the jewel might be named after the picture).
At the heart of the exhibition and facing each other are the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one from the National Gallery, the other from the Louvre. Leonardo was given this commission soon after his arrival in Milan. The Louvre version is the first, but it was never delivered. He then undertook a second version, finally delivered 25 years later. The London picture has been cleaned and looks superb. The Louvre painting, in poor condition, suffers by comparison. You can see though how over the years Leonardo moved from a descriptive ideal of beauty to something that is more transcendental. Cool, muted colour has replaced warmth. Stillness has replaced suspended action. What seems momentary in the first version has become eternal in the second. Exploring the complex relationship between Leonardo’s scientific understanding and his religious belief, the catalogue suggests that in the later version his vision of perfection now reflects the Immaculate Conception, a state of being not subject to the accidents and imperfections of the mortal world.
The other pictures by Leonardo here are St Jerome, large and unfinished, the lovely little Madonna feeding the Christ child, called the Madonna Litta, the National Gallery’s own great cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, and the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the picture that became famous when it was stolen from Drumlanrig. If the authenticity of this little painting has been doubted, in this company it is clear that it is mainly by Leonardo himself but, left unfinished, the landscape was later painted by a much inferior artist.
The picture that will attract most attention however is the mysterious Christ as Salvator Mundi. Revealed by cleaning as potentially a long lost Leonardo, seeing it here there can be no doubt. Even though the face is damaged, the power of the picture’s presence is palpable. The explanation of the strange, archaic, full-face image is that Leonardo was imitating the divine face as it is seen in images like the Turin Shroud, the face of Christ supposedly recorded without human intervention. In the picture Christ has no crown, but carries in his hand a perfect sphere of rock crystal. It is a symbol of divine kingship, but also here of Leonardo’s own creative power. At that time, no-one knew how to shape rock crystal, least of all into this perfect form, no-one that is except God and the painter. With his brush and his divine gift he could create anything.
This is a truly remarkable exhibition for what it contains, but its amazing content is also admirably supported by its presentation. The labels are lucid, informative and concise, the catalogue beautiful and rich in insight. The memory of the exhibition and the light it throws on this extraordinary artist will endure for a very long time.
• Until 5 February 2012